“I’ve never really been a one-sport kind of guy.”
That’s been Hermantown native and New York Rangers blue-liner Neal Pionk’s stance on being more than just hockey player for as long as he remembered. Not only did Pionk excel on the ice, he played baseball recreationally up until age 21.
And Pionk is not alone. The list of high-profile Minnesotans that rejected early specialization in favor of a multisport development experience is seemingly endless – as are the benefits.
By playing multiple sports, kids will avoid burnout and overuse injuries, all while developing other skills and all-around athleticism that will ultimately translate into being a better hockey player.
“Truthfully, the thing that concerns me the most is when we see players who are only playing hockey,” said St. Cloud State University coach Brett Larson. “In my opinion it’s imperative that players are becoming athletes, not just hockey players. They should be hitting the ball, kicking the ball, shooting the ball, running, swimming, whatever it may be. It has to be more than hockey. Those are the players we want to get to the next level, and they are the players that generally will because they are well-rounded, avoided a burnout of one sport and have a dedication to being the best at whatever they try to.”
Here are some of the biggest names in hockey who say no to early specialization.
Anders Lee, Edina, New York Islanders
Anders Lee, captain of the New York Islanders, was a three-sport athlete all the way through high school, only feeling pressured to give up other sports his senior season to pursue hockey.
“I ended up not playing (baseball) my senior year and kind of got ready for junior hockey,” said Lee, a starting pitcher, quarterback and forward for the Edina Hornets’ varsity baseball, football and hockey teams. “Looking back, I wish I had just played baseball my senior year. The commitment level at the time, I really felt that I had to get ready for hockey – my focus was on that – but if I could change it, I would have played because I love baseball.”
And while he may have regrets about giving up one sport too soon, he’s never regretted playing more than one.
“There’s a ton of multisport athletes that I looked at and wanted to be like,” he said. “It’s a gift that living in Minnesota was able to give with the fact that the high school schedule with football, hockey and baseball, all those seasons made it easy to go from one to the other.”
Lee Stecklein, Roseville, Minnesota Whitecaps
Youth, high school, NCAA, Olympics, NWHL – what hasn’t Lee Stecklein won?
But surprise, surprise, Stecklein isn’t just a decorated hockey player. At Roseville High School she was a 16-time letterwinner in lacrosse, soccer, tennis, academics and hockey.
“I don’t think I ever even considered playing just one sport,” said Stecklein. “All of my friends were doing different things all the time and it just was kind of the norm to move from one season and one sport to the next.
“It’s something I truly hope girls today are still doing. It’s great to be a hockey player and have that dream to do really well in hockey, but I think what makes you a great hockey player is the athlete you are in general, and the person you are, too. Being a multisport athlete made me the hockey player I am today, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Nick Seeler, Eden Prairie, Minnesota Wild
“I played just about every sport,” Wild defenseman Nick Seeler said. “As a kid I tried everything you could think of: football, soccer, baseball, I golfed through high school. As a kid I think it’s so important to learn all that you can in every sport and not be so specialized in just one, especially at a young age. I just think that’s really important.”
Before he became a shutdown NHL defenseman, Seeler was being what he dubbed “a normal kid” and just playing “whatever my buddies were playing.”
“That’s how it should be,” he said. “No pressure to play just one thing. Do what you love and if you love playing every sport under the sun, do that. I think it’s up to the kid what they want to do, and that’s how it should be.”
Madeline Wethington, Edina/Blake/University of Minnesota
Madeline Wethington is a three-time U18 Women’s World gold medalist and the 2018 Ms. Hockey, but she’s not just a rink rat.
She’s been in choir, soccer, math club, skiing and snowboarding, soccer and even juggling club (she can juggle five balls at a time). She’s also captain of the Blake golf team.
“I see more and more kids so focused on one sport at a young age and that's not the way I was brought up,” said Wethington, who will join the Gophers next season. “That's not the way my whole family was raised. I think that's super important – to be well balanced and do a lot of different activities.
“When something becomes a chore, I don't think that's a good thing. I've never really felt like, ‘oh, I have to go to hockey.’ It's more like, ‘oh, I want to go to hockey. I love hockey.’ I wouldn’t play if I didn’t like it.”
Blake Wheeler, Robbinsdale, Winnipeg Jets
Blake Wheeler grew up in a non-hockey household. One thing his family did value however was playing multiple sports. His dad, James, was a three-sport athlete, opting for basketball instead of hockey, and even spent time playing minor league baseball.
Blake himself played as a wide receiver for Breck High School in addition to being a late bloomer on the ice.
Now, as a father of three, he wants to make sure his own kids will never be too focused on just one thing, including hockey.
“You have to have passions outside of just hockey,” he said. “I want my kids to try everything. I want them to be in band, chess, whatever, even if it’s not sports. I think it’s vital to them growing up.”
Brett Larson, St. Cloud State Head Coach
Brett Larson longs for the days where kids played everything.
“It feels like somewhere along the lines, things have changed and you see more and more one-sport athletes,” Larson said. “I think that’s absolutely the wrong way to go about your development, and the wrong way to take that next step.
“When you’re so focused on just making it to the NHL, or NFL, or whatever, you tend to actually hinder your development. You put too much emphasis on playing hockey 24/7 and you start to get more frustrated in the game and a lot of times it can turn you resentful at the game that you’re supposed to love.
“There’s no reason an 8-year-old should hate hockey by age 9 because he was playing it too much. Grab your bike and hit the neighborhood with friends or play baseball at the field with buddies during the summer. Don’t play one thing year-round. Trust me, it’s not the route to go.”